Lead Article

Coaching, Mentoring and Spiritual Formation

Learning and insights from a recent consultation for mentors and coaches[1] are reported in this article. It delves into many aspects of mentoring, coaching, and spiritual formation including the value of both older mentors and peer mentors. It also provides helpful suggestions for finding a mentor and a mentee.

Three Case Studies from China

Case Study 1: My ministry and marriage were ruined. I was isolated in unbearable agony. Then, God showed me that even if I lost everything, I still had Christ. Friends fasted with me for 12 days. As I confessed everything to them and to God, my guilt was broken. They helped restore my marriage and now God is using me to help others facing similar problems. Friends loved me in my sin, helping me fall in love with Jesus again. Without them, I would not be here.

Case Study 2: My mentally handicapped son cannot talk or even recognize a banana. He bites himself and me, his mother. Eventually I cried, “God, why did you give me such a tough job?” He showed me that I cannot save my son, but I can depend on him. He sent a sister to teach us some communication skills. Now I consider him my “silent coach.” I accept my imperfect son, just as God accepts us, his imperfect children. I am learning humility, realizing I need others to develop my son’s potential. I have no love apart from God; only when I am connected to Christ can I love my son the way God loves him. Now I am using those lessons to help others.

Case Study 3: I was struggling in deep darkness. Henri Nouwen’s writings were a walking stick when I could not walk. With many tears, I spent much time in prayer, journaling, and listening to God. Although I heard from God, I needed to talk with someone, so I called a friend. She was strong for me in my weakness. We prayed over many things. She helped me grasp the drama of God’s work in me. Her words touched me, not just intellectually, but deep inside.

What Do These Stories Share in Common?

A three-fold dynamic occurs in each story: (1) a person in need cries out to God; (2) Christ meets them by his Spirit; (3) God brings key mentors to provide care, skills, insight, and so on. The mentor is seen as a “friend.” Breakthroughs occur in the context of deep, heart-level communication.

Walking with Leaders Consultation

Fifty-one Christian leaders gathered for the WWL consultation in Hong Kong to discuss coaching, mentoring and spiritual formation. Thirty-seven of these were men and 14 women (16 from China, 9 from Hong Kong, and 26 from other countries). Most (69%) served in cities while 31% served in rural areas. 

In the previous twelve months, this small group of people had made a big impact coaching or mentoring hundreds of people from 27 of China’s 34 provinces,[2] including: business people, church network leaders, pastors, youth, trainers, and organizational leaders.

Spiritual Formation: Becoming like Christ

WWL’s theme was “Coaching, Mentoring and Spiritual Formation.” [3] One WWL facilitator shared:

There are many definitions of coaching, mentoring and spiritual formation. WWL sees coaching as asking questions to draw out what God has put inside a person and mentoring as pouring into a person, walking with them and providing input.

Coaching is drawing out. Mentoring is pouring in.

Spiritual formation is the big picture of becoming like Christ—not watching passively from the outside but participating actively from the inside.

Becoming Christ-like resembles climbing a mountain. It takes a lifetime; it is an eternal journey. Some are halfway up the mountain; others are near the top or bottom. To help them, coaches and mentors ask questions like:

  • When did you start your journey? Recently or long ago?
  • Are you moving upward, downward, or circling the mountain?
  • What are you approaching? A cliff or a meadow?
  • Are you healthy or injured? Rested or tired?
  • Are you stuck?
  • What is your season of life? Personality type? Learning posture?
  • How do you hear from God?

Spiritual formation climbs the mountain of Christ-likeness, actively responding to God’s love. God’s grace takes the initiative and pursues us, but we have a choice: to resist or embrace.

Coaching and mentoring are two tools in climbing the mountain of spiritual formation. They are not the only tools, but they are good tools. Mentoring pours in. Coaching draws out. Spiritual formation is the big picture in becoming like Christ.

The key to spiritual formation is contemplating Christ. As we contemplate Jesus in intimacy with the Father, the Holy Spirit gradually transforms us into greater Christ-likeness.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Mentoring: Pouring In

WWL participants were asked, “Which functions are most important in mentoring?”

Almost 44% felt that “sharing experience” was the most important function of mentoring. Others said, “Listening deeply to identify the needs of the mentee” lies at the core of effective mentoring. Only then can mentors “pour in” what is appropriate.

Mentors also perform other functions, such as: empathizing, suggesting resources, holding accountable, helping form strategic plans, or simply enjoying each other’s friendship.

Qualities of a Good Mentor

Participants were asked, “What do you look for in a mentor?” They look for someone who:

  • Walks with me, is safe, trustworthy, and accepts without judging. We like each other.
  • Is “successful” as a spouse, parent, employer, employee, man or woman of God.
  • Openly and honestly removes the “mask.” Deep relationship requires vulnerability.
  • Is affirming, gentle and kind. Other mentors are firm and direct. We need both.
  • Helps me know what to do; helps me know myself better.
  • Is sensitive to the Holy Spirit and speaks into my life. Opens new doors.

Mentoring toward Calling

One participant’s many dreams tortured him—because they were only dreams. His mentor used Focusing Leaders (see Recommended Resources in the Resource Corner) to help him distinguish his dreams from God’s dream. This helped him relax and pursue God’s call.

Another team of 40 people used Focusing Leaders to develop their Personal Calling Statements. They are much happier in ministry now, helping each other fulfill their callings.

Mentoring and Culture: Upward Mentors or Peer Mentors?

One Chinese participant asked, “Must mentors be older? Can friends act as mentors too?”

An experienced female mentor said friends can be excellent peer-mentors since they journey together with similar experiences; however, older mentors with more life experience provide a broader perspective. Both are needed.

The Chinese participant responded, “Traditionally, we respect older people with more authority; however, it is easier to share more deeply and honestly with a friend. It’s hard to find older mentors in the Chinese church. Besides, they may not know how to mentor well. It may be easier to find friends to act as peer-mentors.”

Stanley and Clinton recommend a “Mentoring Constellation” (Connecting 1992:157-168. See Recommended References).

The “Mentoring Constellation”—written by two male Westerners—does not emphasize deep-level honesty with peer-mentors (it is probably assumed, but not stated). However, this is precisely what Chinese participants highlighted as the primary benefit of peer mentoring. Heart-level sharing occurs more easily between peer mentors than with upward mentors.

Our three case studies make the same point. All three individuals needed “friends” (peer mentors) to communicate deeply enough to achieve genuine breakthroughs. This may suggest a cultural distinction between Western and Chinese mentoring dynamics related to status, age, authority, and power.

Hofstede’s groundbreaking research on culture in 57 countries defines power distance as the “emotional distance” between leaders and followers.[4]

Leaders in high-power-distance countries tend to be more authoritarian and less approachable. Leaders in low-power-distance countries tend to be less authoritarian and more approachable.

Hofstede’s research seems to confirm the observations of Chinese participants at WWL. If so, friendship style peer-mentoring in China may be more effective in certain situations than mentoring by leaders.

This does not mean that Chinese leaders should stop mentoring; however, leaders who encourage peer-mentoring among subordinates may actually help them more in some cases. This may also relieve the pressure busy leaders feel to provide more downward mentoring for subordinates.

Of course, different needs require different kinds of mentoring. The question is: Which kind of mentoring—horizontal or vertical—best fits the need? Clearly, the cultural (and gender) dimensions of vertical and horizontal mentoring require further research.

Coaching: Drawing Out

Coaching is an “intentional conversation that empowers a person or group to fully live out God’s calling.”[5] Three of the most important coaching skills include:

1.      Attentive Listening

Listening is a gift we give another person. Experienced Chinese coaches at WWL explained the traditional Chinese character for “listen.”

2.      Asking Powerful Questions

Powerful questions have three characteristics:

  • Coachee-centered: Can you explain more about your family?” helps the coach know the person; but “How did your family affect you?” helps the coachee reflect more deeply.
  • Solution-oriented: Why did you do that?” may cause the coachee to feel blamed; but “How can I help you solve the problem?” focuses on solutions, not problems.
  • Forward-looking: How did this conflict happen?” looks backward; but “What is the best way to solve this conflict?” looks toward the future.

3.      Agreeing on Self-Directed Tasks

Coaching is conversation with a purpose. Coaches listen deeply, asking probing questions to help coachees achieve their own self-directed goals.

One Chinese couple asked us to help them improve their marriage—a self-directed goal. We suggested reading His Needs, Her Needs in Chinese. Two weeks later, the wife fairly danced into our home exclaiming, “He has changed so much! Thank you!” The husband too, was full of smiles.

Goals must be self-directed. If coaches assign goals, coachees take less responsibility. If coachees determine their own goals, they take more responsibility.

Goals must be task-oriented. Good tasks are clear and measurable with deadlines. Coaches should ask, “What action step will you take before we meet again?”

Finding a Mentor / Mentee

Coaches and mentors help us on the journey toward Christ-likeness. How do we find them?

Finding a Mentor

If you say, “Will you be my mentor?” people may feel intimidated or not have time. One Bible school teacher suggested saying: “Pastor, I have a question. Could we chat over coffee?” Most pastors are glad to help. Afterwards say, “That was very helpful. Could we meet again in two weeks?” This is mentoring without using the term.

A WWL participant had gone to that teacher saying, “I have a problem. Could you help me?” Later he said, “Thank you so much! Could we meet again?” Over the next few years, that teacher became his mentor!

Finding a Mentee

One WWL leader felt it was awkward to say to a younger man, “Can I be your mentor?” Instead, he said, “Let’s have coffee!” They met once a month. The leader’s goal was to help him succeed. Occasionally he said, “You seem to be stuck here.” Because the younger man was teachable, the leader could walk with him through transformation.

Coaching and mentoring are powerful tools, walking people up the mountain of spiritual formation toward Christ-likeness. The challenge of WWL is:

  • Pour in!
  • Draw out!
  • Grow in Christ-likeness. Contemplate Christ!

[1] Walking with Leaders (WWL) held in Hong Kong in May, 2014 was a bilingual, invitation-only consultation for experienced Christian coaches and mentors serving in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. WWL gave these uniquely qualified leaders an opportunity to compare notes and share learning. This article reports some of that learning.

[2] Figures include autonomous regions, municipalities, special administrative regions and provinces claimed by China. People mentored by WWL participants came from: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hebei, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi Zhuang, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Provinces not represented include: Jilin, Jiangxi, Henan, Hainan, Guizhou, Gansu and Tibet.

[3] The coaches and mentors of WWL were asked, “What are the top needs of leaders in China?” One of the primary needs mentioned was spiritual formation. Other needs included: Bible and theology knowledge, marriage and family issues, healthy relationships in community, coaching and mentoring, leadership and management skills, and a vision for missionary multiplication.

[4] (2010:1166-1169, see Recommended Resources)

[5] Cf. The COACH Model for Christian Leaders, 2012: Kindle Locations 234-235. See Recommended Resources.

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc (modified). 

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MC (pseudonym) has worked with Chinese believers for over 40 years.View Full Bio